“All victims of human rights abuses should be able to look to the Human Rights Council as a forum and a springboard for action.”¹ On the 12th November, 14 new members² were elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council, many of whom are not known for their record of supporting human rights.
The Human Rights Council was established as an inter-governmental body of the United Nations in 2006 by adopting resolution 60/251. It is responsible for 'strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations'. The council is comprised of 47 member states of the United Nations, elected by the United Nations General Assembly. The council works alongside special rapporteurs, special representatives and independent experts working on human rights issues and themes across the world. As part of their responsibilities, these experts undertake country visits at the request of the council, and agreement of the visiting country.
New members serve on the council for a three year term, with the ethos and responsibilities of council members set out in 60/251. Clause 8 of this resolution states that:
'When electing members of the Council, Member States shall take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto; the General Assembly, by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting, may suspend the rights of membership in the Council of a member of the Council that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights.'³
Of the new members, three countries (Algeria, China and Russia) have over ten unfulfilled requests for visits, while Saudi Arabia and Vietnam both have seven requests. Furthermore, several of these requests are over a decade old. The United Kingdom is also subject to two outstanding requests, namely from the Special Rapporteur on the right to food (agreed) and Special Rapporteur on violence against women (requested on the 16th June 2013). Indeed, of the 14 new members, Uruguay is the only newly elected state not to possess any outstanding visit requests.
Unfulfilled visit requests from new members of the council include from Special Rapporteurs on: freedom of religion or belief; human rights and counter-terrorism; torture; freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; and racism. There are also unfulfilled visit requests from Working Groups on enforced or involuntary disappearances, and arbitrary detention, along with requests from Independent Experts on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, extreme poverty, and cultural rights.
Peggy Hicks, the global advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, suggested that “countries that haven’t allowed UN experts appointed by the council to visit have a lot of explaining to do. It’s like hiring someone, then not allowing them to enter the office”. Hicks has a point: what power will a request from the Human Rights Council have when 13 of its newest members have ignored or circumvented visit requests of their own? This also appears to be in direct contradiction with clause 9 of 60/251, wherein, members of the council 'shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights'. Other responses to the election of these new members have been equally damning. Hillel Neuer, the executive director of the UN Watch organisation stated that for “the U.N. to elect Saudi Arabia as a world judge on human rights would be like a town making a pyromaniac into chief of the fire department”.
Furthermore, it is also noted by the UN watch that 47% of the members of the council fail to meet the minimum standard required for a free democracy. Given this, coupled with the outstanding requests for visits of the new members of the Human Rights Council, the legitimacy of the council must be called into question, perhaps alongside the global governance of human rights abuses generally.
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Dr Simon Mabon teaches on our BA Politics and International Relations programme.
¹ Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, 12 March 2007, Opening of the 4th Human Rights Council Session
² The countries are: Algeria, China, Cuba, France Maldives, Mexico, Morocco, Namibia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Viet Nam, Russia, and United Kingdom
³ UNGA 60/251 Clause 8
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